In the stretch run of the 2016 campaign, columnist and CNN contributor Salena Zito identified a fault line in the tumultuous relationship between the news media and Trump supporters. The press, she wrote, had taken then-candidate Donald Trump “literally, but not seriously,” while his backers regarded his statements “seriously, but not literally.”
If you’re not familiar with her now pervasive chestnut, Zito’s point was this: many reporters missed out on Trump’s appeal because they were too caught up analyzing (or criticizing) the details of his most extreme promises and threats. Trump supporters, by contrast, were less concerned with the vagaries of border wall construction than hearing their frustrations and resentment recited back to them.
As a piece of cultural analysis, the argument still resonates. But when pressed up against the reality of the new administration’s first ten days, it dissipates. Trump has shown during his brief time in office that he should have been, and should be, taken both seriously and literally – by everyone.
In an unprecedented blitz of executive actions, the new administration continues to implement or set the traps for a raft of the campaign’s most controversial pledges. A vague order delivered late Friday night, immediately and without notice to a number of federal agencies and hundreds of affected travelers, barred for 90 days the entry of “immigrants and nonimmigrants” from seven Muslim-majority nations into the US. The same order temporarily shutdown the US refugee program. Syrian refugees have been denied safe harbor indefinitely.
Trump’s executive actions capped off a dizzying week that saw congressional Republicans, dedicated for a generation to blocking new spending, promising to pay for the border wall, while the mostly Democratic mayors of sanctuary cities began to carve out a legal bulwark against the President’s demand they be cut off from federal funding.
Whether or not Trump’s early actions will withstand a growing backlash that began on the streets and has spread to corporate boardrooms and into the offices of some elected leaders is an open question. But there are few signs he plans to defer to public opinion – at least that of the public which opposed him from the outset.
There are also legal questions. Some of the initial flurry, like the travel and refugee bans, have arrived in the form of enforceable orders. They will face court challenges, but there are already worries the administration will ignore or sidestep judicial orders. His memo inviting the pipeline company TransCanada to “promptly re-submit its application” to jumpstart the Keystone XL project was, in effect, a very formal press release, but one that represented a clear statement of intent.
By midday Tuesday, when Trump’s Keystone and Dakota Access pipeline memos were made public, the Native American tribe potentially affected by construction was considering its court options and the coalition of activists who camped out for months in the planned path of the DAPL were scheduling flights back to North Dakota. That night, and over the weekend, protests sprung up (for the third time in a week) across the country.
Certain bits of campaign rhetoric have been left behind on the trail. When the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, canceled a planned meeting in Washington after publicly refusing to pay for a border wall, as Trump continues to insist he will, there was no subsequent threat to build it “ten feet higher.” Instead, the White House organized a phone call between the leaders. Trump was uncharacteristically withholding of its details.
But some of candidate Trump’s most headline-grabbing bluster has manifested itself in quieter ways. Trump insisted on the stump that he “knows more about ISIS than the generals do.” It was easy to dismiss as bluster – a serious, if cheeky, argument against the strategic path taken by the US in its conflict with with ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.
But as seen in his drastic Sunday reshuffling of the National Security Council, which will no longer count the director of national intelligence or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as members of its central “principles committee,” he took action – in a very literal way – to assert his judgment and those of his increasingly closed inner circle ahead of “the generals.”
So what comes next?
No tea leaves required – Google and Trump’s campaign website should be considered the most reliable of sources.